Some Massachusetts school districts say in-person timeline is not realistic, will apply for waiver

The state’s push to get elementary students back in the classroom full-time by April 5 is not realistic for many communities that have been remote for a year, education leaders told the Herald on Wednesday.

These school districts, primarily in cities with crowded classrooms and where coronavirus positivity rates have been higher, plan on asking the state for a waiver to delay the transition to full in-person learning.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for a number of districts,” Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said of the timeline approaching in less than a month. “Some districts won’t be able to pull it off that fast.”

Those districts include the Worcester Public Schools, which plans to apply for a waiver.

School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick noted that spacing at lunch is a major concern. Students at lunch need to be at least six feet apart because they won’t be wearing masks while eating, unlike the three-foot guidance for masked students in classrooms.

At a Worcester middle school planning hybrid learning with half the students in school, Novick said they have enough lunch space using both the cafeteria and gym.

“We need to fill the cafeteria and the gym to make that work,” she added. “Those are some pretty inflexible boundaries, which we’ve known since August.”

Elementary school waiver requests need to be sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by March 22. Districts that have primarily been fully remote all year can submit a waiver to “take a more incremental approach,” according to DESE.

“All districts were required to draw up plans for remote learning, hybrid learning, and full in-person learning before the start of the school year, so schools already should have plans in place to return to in-person learning,” a DESE spokesperson said in a statement. “Districts that are doing remote-only learning now may be eligible for a waiver to do hybrid learning first before a return to full in-person schools.”

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said the union wants to get students back to full in-person as quickly as possible, but “a lot of outstanding questions” remain. There are facility and transportation concerns, as well as the lunch spacing issue, she said.

“Practically and realistically speaking, it’s difficult to see how the district will pull this off by April 5,” Tang said.

Boston Public Schools said in a statement, “We share the Commissioner’s goal of restoring expanded in-person learning opportunities as soon as possible… We are reviewing the state guidance released today. In the coming days we will share updates with our families and distribute a survey in order to determine their interest in returning to five days of in-person learning.”

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